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Death by flowers

Floral dreamscapes that consider her own mortality are the focus of Carmel Van Der Hoeven’s latest works. She talks to Madeleine Boles de Boer about the process.

Photography by Ruth Friedlander

Death is often a preoccupations of artists; for Carmel Van Der Hoeven, it borders on an obsession. “I think about death way too much,” says the painter.

Her paintings of flowers and gardens don’t seem like an obvious way to depict death. Full of whimsy and personality, the colourful works are bursting with life.

Van Der Hoeven, who lives in Waikato, has been interested in art from a young age, but never considered it as a career path. “Most of my life, art was something I fell into.” After dipping in and out of painting for years, she started drawing baby animals during her second pregnancy. Her break came when Endemic World in Auckland offered to sell prints of her illustrations. Then, the artist got into ceramics, falling “deep down the rabbit hole with pottery”, and looking to escape she turned to her first love, painting.

Operating under a pseudonym for several years, the multi-disciplinary artist has now largely embraced painting, and her own name. She dove into art full-time in 2019, which she describes as fraught with doubts, and insecurities. “I made them part of my paintings. I battled with stress, insomnia, and finding balance with my work, life, and family.”

Three years later, her work has acquired a cult-like following. It consists predominantly of colourful paintings of state houses, and of flowers. She says her pieces are less about their subject matter, and more about the avenues they provide for exploring her own thoughts.

“It’s not necessarily the houses and the gardens that are important, but they’re a tool I can use to explore the direction I want to go in – I can bend them.”

Photography by Ruth Friedlander

Her now-signature floral pieces were something she never thought she’d do. “I once said I didn’t think I would ever paint gardens. I should be careful of the statements I make,” she laughs.

Van Der Hoeven was first asked to paint flowers for a specific show, and by chance had access to her sister’s flower farm. Painted from photographs, her pieces exhibited a kind of “flattened impressionism”. Her style, marked by movement-filled brush strokes, has developed over the subsequent years.

“Over the years I have had plenty of time to consider the humble flower. I think nature and particularly flowers offer me endless possibilities to explore the concepts of colour, time, movement, and expression. There is also life and death in nature. The flower is possibly the surest way to remind us of life and time passing. They come and go every year, every season.”

She was recently asked to create a painting for a breast cancer fundraiser, a confronting, fraught topic. “When you face your mortality, that moment of life is so much more vivid and beautiful. You can’t hold on to it for very long, that thought process. You can’t think about death for that long, it slips away. When you do get that feeling, it makes life so much… more.”

Van Der Hoeven is working toward her forthcoming exhibition, Mortal Dreams, in November at Turua Gallery, Auckland.

The name comes from her attempts to make sense of life: “I wanted to create an echo of our world, something we recognise at first glance but on closer inspection see it is unlike our reality – like a dream.

Photography by Ruth Friedlander

While the works are floral-focused, Van Der Hoeven is tight-lipped about their appearance. Her last show attracted lines down the street four hours before opening, and many paintings were sold before people walked through the door. This time around, she’s been secretive.

Once Mortal Dreams is done, Van Der Hoeven would like a break, but admits she’s “not very good at that. Creativity is addictive.” She’s been working on her garden for the first time, “which is weird because I paint flowers” she laughs. “But I’ve never been interested in gardens, it was just a subject matter. Working on my garden at the moment, I can see why people do it. It feels exactly like working out a painting.”

Despite three sold-out shows, a collaboration with Juliette Hogan, and a hot resale market, the artist still has ambitions – and a desire to prove herself. “I’ve done lots of different things, but I’ve always been on the outskirts of the New Zealand art world. I’ve done things in different ways, and been pretty untraditional. I didn’t go to art school.”

With such aspirations, and an immense following, does she feel pressured? “There’s some ego involved, but ego is not needed or important when I’m painting. It’s sort of a side thing. Creativity and ego don’t work together. The results, for example, the interest in my work – make it all worthwhile.”

First published in Art Zone #92


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